Standing on shoulders

Rachel Thomson and Sue Scott

What does it mean to take data back to a community? When thinking through the return of the WRAP data to Manchester we had to think about whether any of the spaces or access points from the original research still existed or made sense. We quickly found that many of the youth centres we had visited in the 1980s had closed down and in some cases been demolished. One access point that did seem possible was the drama department at the University of Manchester. In the original study three interviewees were drama students at the University. These interviews captured a particular culture of sexuality – political, reflexive, cosmopolitan but also complicated in term of the sexual politics of the drama scene and expectations of intimacy and availability within the theatrical community. Read again against the elapsing thirty years these interviews seemed to be #METOO before the hashtag.

We approached the University drama department to see if there might be any young women who would be interested in revisiting these interviews today. What would it mean to do this? How much trouble might be involved in this digging up of the past? We were keen to share the anonymised material but also concerned that these accounts would be treated with respect and care. It felt very complicated, yet the possibility of working with contemporary drama students, engaging with verbatim theatre practices and utilising performance as a mode for opening the material up for exploration was an exciting possibility.

Through the help of Alison Jeffers we found the Women’s Theatre Society at the University of Manchester- a student society lead by Lae and Elena, two final year drama students who had recently taken over the leadership of a safe space where female students can engage in performance. Elena and Lae were very open to our invitation and ran with the project – workshoping the material, inviting researchers to join them for questioning abut the original context and engaging themselves in short interviews with original researchers. On Saturday 15 February they presented their final piece at the student union and were met with standing ovation.

Here are some reflections on the performance by the two original researchers who interviewed over 60 young women in Manchester 30 years ago. We hear first from Sue Scott and then Rachel Thomson.

Sue Scott

The weekend had been a bit of a rush and I arrived ‘just in time’ from a crowded train so had not really thought my way into the situation and wasn’t at all sure what to expect. It was delightful when Rachel and myself were greeted by enthusiastic and excited young women – the play’s directors, Elena and Lae.

I had a sense of being a ‘celebrity’ by virtue of being part of the original WRAP project  – very strange when it was all so long ago, but as they made clear in the Q and A they wouldn’t have done it without WRAP and they had clearly got so much out of it that whatever else happens to the play it has played an important part in their student experience.

Such a lot of them on stage – and so colourful – it gave a sense of the best sort of ‘Girl’s Group’ turned theatre. I’m sure that for some of them the confidence was hard won, but they inhabited it, at least for the period of the play. The way that they developed and interwove the stories from the interviews with there own was very well done, if a bit of a whirlwind experience at times. They were brave in what they said – not just because they were saying it in public, but also because they had already said it to themselves and each other and carried on. Yes sex is discussed everywhere, but yet it isn’t. 

The continuities and commonalities were striking and yet the drama students who Rachel interviewed in 1989 probably couldn’t have done this, so something has shifted. The students demonstrated wonderfully some of the many and various ways of being a young woman in relation to their sexuality and their presentation of gender in a way that might have been easier in 1979 than in 1989 – but of course only for a minority and in a safe feminist context.

It struck me so forcibly that the young women of the WRAP data would now be old enough to be these young women’s mothers – older perhaps than some of their mothers. It was clear in the Q and A that this was not lost on them, but there was no time to ask them if they discussed the play and the WRAP project with their Mother’s or Aunts – I would love to know. The ‘imaginary’ interview with one of their mother’s was powerful.

It could have been depressing as many of the negative aspects of sex and relationships for young women were clearly portrayed but they had their appropriate place and not to the exclusion of some positives and also ‘ordinary’ and ’mundane’ experiences being recounted, of which there were many in the WRAP data, but perhaps we didn’t take enough note at the time…

I was struck by the dynamic of the interviews – very odd to hear Rachel giving voice to her younger self! And the way the young women took this as a starting point to – as Rachel put it – then ‘interview themselves’. It definitely made me think about different ways of accessing data and stories.I think the theme that I came away with though was ‘friendship’– or at lease comradeship – and in the young women’s stories and my thoughts about not having explored this sufficiently in the original project. I now want to read the transcripts of the interviews they drew on.

It’s also important to think about what the theatre society can do with this now – all the hard work should have more of an airing and it would be great to share it with other young women.

Rachel Thomson

 There is much to be said about the performance, but the point I want to note here is how it was so very different to what I had originally anticipated and how this difference gives us both insight into the way that social change is lived and hope for the future of gender equality and sexual revolution.

When working with the material, what the young women in the theatre society notice and are moved by are the interview encounters themselves: the communication that took place between a young women (much like them) and a researcher (not much older). The interview questions were bold, much bolder than would be possible or acceptable today (when was your first sexual experience, did you enjoy it, how did you know…).  They found the questions problematic and part of the performance shows their irritation. But they also noted that the space that the WRAP young women took in these interviews was remarkable – speaking with an honestly and openness that was transformative. Not simply in the moment, but again and again as the material is performed and reanimated. The young women in the Women’s Theatre Society wanted to do justice to the realness of the young women’s accounts. In doing so they created their own monologues, effectively interviewing themselves but in the context of solidarity from others – both in the present and in the past.

Witnessing the performance was an extraordinary experience for me: understanding that a form of evolution has taken place, but that it demanded an engagement with a tradition of speaking out together about sex. The young women’s monologues did not start from scratch, they began from where the interviews in the WRAP archive left off and they honour the form of talk and communication that marks the highpoint of those conversations. Some of the monologues deliberately used the interview as a form. For example Savannah’s piece was an imaginary interview with her mother that allowed her to step into her mother’s shoes and to speak about a vivid experience of gay pride in Ghana and Black Gay pride in London – luxuriating in the beauty and freedom of her daughters.

As an original interviewer who has now spent much time revisiting the conversations that took place thirty years ago I am very sensitive to the plasticity of our subject positions: I am me now (a mother), and me then (a daughter). I am the interviewer and yet the interviews tell my story as well as the women I spoke with. It was this fluidity, possibility and pride that I heard most clearly in the performance. Yes, there were and are things that don’t change. Sex and power still combine in cruel ways and new generations of young women appear to have to learn things again painfully. Yet it is also possible to stand on each others’ shoulders, to share knowledge and build possibility. When this happens we are very powerful.

Watch the live performance of The Reanimating Project.

Too much?

Rachel Thomson

The idea of working with a group of drama students came about when re-encountering the original data set and finding and remembering an interview (MAG50) with a young woman studying drama at Manchester University. MAG50 was eager to talk about her own complicated emotional life as well as the ‘false and forced intimacy’ of the drama scene.  She shared stories of non consensual sex as well as intense relationships with powerful older men. She also articulated her understanding of the sexual politics of the theatre industry where women may need to be sexually available in order to get work.

Reading this interview in a new historical moment framed by the #metoo movement and  the exposure of predatory men within the entertainment and creative industries encouraged me to take this material to todays drama students at Manchester University. I wanted to find out if they would be interested in the material and in collaborating in a project of reanimation that would help us think about social change and continuity. We began by making contact with Alison Jeffers in the drama dept at MU who put us in contact with Elena and Lea – two third year students who had recently taken over the stewardship of the Women’s Theatre Society – a student led theatre society for women.

The work began. We shared two further transcripts with the group – both interviews with young women who were drama students at UM in 1989.  After 6 weeks of workshopping the material I was able to join them.

Before leaving for Manchester I gathered some memorabilia to take with me – objects from my life at the time the research was done; an old diary, photographs and a copy of my handwritten Masters dissertation on Women and AIDS, which lead to me being part of the WRAP project. I also read MAG50 again on my way to Manchester as well as reading my dissertation. Through these objects I tried to remember my 23 year old self. When I met the young women that evening they jumped, as if they had seen a ghost. I understood that they had got to know a version of me in the interviews and that meeting the 53 year old me was strange for them. I tried to explain that it was strange for me too.

I shared my memorabilia and to began a Q&A session that lasted over an hour where we did the work of weaving feminist webs between our shared relationship with this interview and our shared co-presence, uncannily in the very building where the original research had taken place. There were a number of moments in this conversation when connections were made between the old me and the new me, between the young women and MAG50, between 1988 and 2019 in that building. I felt like we were doing a collaborative analysis.

Making sense of the boldness of the sexual discourse.

A burning question for the group was how it was possible for the original conversation to have taken place. It was so bold, intimate, open. At first I thought that they were telling me that from their perspective the research was unethical, that the questions too direct, transgressive. But over the discussion I began to understand that they were curious about how such a discourse became possible. They wanted to know about the staging of the interview and the lead up to the conversation (did they know what would be asked?) and about whether I had supervision to prepare me for the ‘heaviness’ of the discussion. It became evident that having a conversation like this now would be very difficult, constrained by concerns about safeguarding, consent and triggering. But rather than chastising me for bad practice I discovered that the young women were eager to re-enact this way of talking.

Rachel: I think that’s really interesting because I think now we would see a study like this through the prism of mental health and it absolutely wasn’t how we looked at it. So, we would now … I don’t know, tell me what you think, I think we would think about triggers things like that, is it triggering? Could you ask that because that might…? Whereas in a way this was the stuff that happened before that whole way of looking at  the  world  came  about,  this  was  much  more  political  I  think  in  a  straightforward way, well nothing is straightforward is it? But it was much more about trying to say, “That’s not fair.” Or, “Put that into words; what words does that…?” Because we didn’t really have any vocabulary to talk about sex, people didn’t know what to call bits of their body, they didn’t know how to name power, and I say ‘they’ I would speak of myself as well, you know, like we didn’t really have a vocabulary to describe any of these things so it was the basic work.

Together we worked out the relationships between now (2019) and a time (1989) where speaking out about sex and about power was a project of making the personal political, naming the unnamed and developing a new vocabulary. As threads connected the two moments in time the young women articulated that this formed a necessary foundation for a future culture that is saturated in the knowledge of sexual violence. Yet we also mused that something had been lost in the reframing of sex from a political to a more psychological register. We realised that there is a complicated new kind of silencing that reigns in the young women’s worlds in which sex is both seen as casual and no big deal, as well as too much trouble, too difficult and too important.

#metoo

At the end of the session I asked them about the #metoo movement and about the sexual politics of the drama world and the entertainment industry. Again the young women told a story of unevenness and contradiction. In many ways things are better for young women – there are pockets of feminist practice and areas of the business dominated by women (documentary film was given as an example). Yet elsewhere in the industry things are worse then they have ever been, with market forces determining what it valued and valuable. An actress still has to rely on her body and her youth. It is not sexism as such that is to blame, but the laws of the industry and the preferences of the audience. We talked about women withdrawing from exposed patriarchal spaces, deciding that it is just ‘too much’ and not worth it. I began to understand what they were trying to tell me about contemporary sexuality and to grasp how what came before is part of what is now in a way that escapes the linear narratives of progress and decline that stand in the way of generational connection.

Urgent mini interviews

The evening culminated in an urgent series of mini interviews, with young women choosing fragments from one of the three interviews to revoice and discuss or simply asking me to ask them questions like I had asked the WRAP young women. The interviews were double documented – I recorded them as ‘data’ for our reanimating project and Elena recorded them as useful material that the group might use for devising a performance.

I learned a lot from these conversations: that it was still hard to be a virgin; that it was hard to find a ‘middle ground’; that the protection of men and families is vital for many people still; that loving oneself can be harder than loving someone else. It was an overwhelming and moving experience that I am in the midst still of understanding.  These re-enactments were the frenzied culmination of a long slow process of engagement which I would like to think of as a single method spread out in time and space and certainly a kind of co-production that we both documented and made our own.

Watching the performance several months later I could see how strands of our conversations in the workshop had been worked with creatively and brought to life through performance. Although the performance did contain extracts from the three interviews, reperformed by the young women, the focus was on the 2019 young women’s stories. In the discussion after the show the young women told us that engaging with the material gave them permission and a desire to tell their own stories and to think that someone out there might be interested in listening.

Watch the live performance of The Reanimating Project.

Anonymity in the archive

Rosie Gahnstrom

Most of my last year has been spent on my sofa, watching daytime TV and preparing the Women, Risk & AIDS Project (WRAP) interviews to be published in a digital archive – my day to day hasn’t changed much at all in light of Covid-19 (apart from the added anxiety of worrying about the health and safety of everyone in the entire world, the plummeting economy and the precarity of academia and its dwindling job market, a.k.a my future prospects).

My role in the Reanimating Data team has been to format, anonymise and catalogue all of the meta-data for the interviews and their accompanying field notes. Much of this has been fairly mundane, ritualistic and monotonous – open document, select all, change font to Arial, size 11, justify margins, adjust margins, insert, page number (top of page, Plain Number 3), find all double spaces, replace all double spaces with single spaces. The trickier, more interesting bits have been treating the data with a feminist ethics of care. Simple, I thought. I just need to give each interviewee a pseudonym and redact any identifying information. We’ve been taught a fairly generic, blanket rule of adhering to ethics like this, but I’d never really had the chance to properly engage with and reflect on these principles.

I had tried to be completely objective when changing the names of research participants. I had a list of ‘Popular baby names 1970s UK’ open on Google, and once I’d exhausted those would stare longingly at my book shelf, mentally scouring stories for names that might fit the stories being told in each interview. Naming each interviewee couldn’t really be objective – there’s too much tied up in a name, and assumptions around social class, ethnicity, place, time, gender. Which names would the original interviewees have picked for themselves? What a certain name might mean to me most likely has totally different connotations for someone else. AMD18, for example, I had named Tonya. On reflection, I think I had been struggling to think of any new names, but had recently seen ‘I, Tonya’ with Margot Robbie, where Tonya Harding (whose life the film is based on) was born in 1970 – just the right age for a WRAP participant. Rachel, PI for the project, said that she wouldn’t have chosen Tonya for that particular interviewee. There’s lots of literature on the importance of naming in social science research (Moore, 2012 – The politics and ethics of naming, for example), and I’m sure I could quite happily write an entire dissertation on the topic.

Archiving the dataset for public use raises a whole host of other ethical issues, too – does informed consent obtained in the late 1980s still count today? Could any of the original research participants ever have imagined that the archive would be taken out of a box in someone’s garage and uploaded onto the internet for anyone to stumble across? Would they want the intimate thoughts of their younger selves out there for themselves to find? – I still can’t decide whether I would like the goings on of my teenage years and the way that I would have framed them then to be known by anyone now, other than maybe my therapist.

Of course, any potential identifying information from each interview has now been anonymised or redacted. Originally, this had meant working with some key principles for anonymising the data, but in practice it didn’t feel right to be as consistent as that. Names of places, parent’s job roles, bands and musicians that young women listened to became [NAME OF TOWN], [CARING PROFESSION], [COUNTRY SINGER]. How much of these young women’s stories are woven into the industrial town in northern England that them and their parents, and probably their parent’s parents grew up in, and the opportunities that had been afforded to them there, and how much context do we lose when we omit these? These are all different parts of these young women’s lives that have, to some extent at least, shaped the way that they think about their sexual identities or how they position themselves against the opposite sex.

Anonymisation principles used by the Reanimating Data team.

  • Change all people’s names (in CAPS). This includes the name of the interviewee, any partners, friends, family members etc. This is the only ‘fake’ information we will include.
  • Where a participant gives their name, change this and create a pseudonym. Where they don’t do this, don’t create a pseudonym.
  • Put all new text / changes in caps.
  • Remove names of schools, workplaces and colleges. Do not replace these with made up names. Instead put [school] [company] etc.
  • Leave all place names and details of neighbourhoods where possible. Where a participant has moved around or where the combination of different places feels identifiable change these. Do not make up alternative places but replace with [town] [city] etc. Or make specifics more generic. E.g. ‘Singapore and Hong Kong’ can be replaced with ASIA.
  • Change details of locations and jobs for third parties (parents, partners) unless seems highly relevant.

One particularly tricky interview to work with was Amanda’s, or LSFS23 as she had been known for some time. Amanda had unfortunately been through an incredibly traumatic sexual experience in her home country before moving to London in the late 1980s. She went into quite a lot of detail about this in her interview and it felt significant for her story to be told, and to be heard. After much consultation with Rachel, Niamh and Sue Sharpe, who had originally interviewed ‘Amanda’, we decided that it was important to keep more than the bare bones of her story alive. Redacting some of the finer details of what had happened, and the names of countries, of work colleagues, of slang terms particular to where Amanda had grown up, felt like enough. We know through the wake of the #MeToo movement that there is power in storytelling, but of course we don’t know whether ‘Amanda’ would still want her story to be heard, and how she would want it to be told. Omitting the entire experience felt like silencing her, which happens far too much to women in society more generally, so I hope that we have done enough here to retain the eloquence and bravery with which Amanda’s story had originally been told.

The Women, Risk and AIDS Project had been conducted in both London and Manchester yet publications that came out of the study blurred any geographical differences, identifying young people only by their age, gender and social class, rather than by their location. Reading the data now I notice striking differences between the data from each of these places. There are different norms and youth sub-cultures operating in the different cities, and in different places within each city. Growing up in Brighton, my own adolescence was spent outside Borders on a Saturday afternoon during my ‘emo’ phase, in Saltdean park with a bottle of Glenn’s vodka on a Friday night, shortly graduating to club nights like Shameless at Audio on a Thursday or Pound Dance at Digital on a Wednesday. These are some of the places that helped shape my identity as a teenager.

The concept of place had been an important way of framing the Reanimating Data project. We have chosen to work with just the Manchester data and to work with community groups in the city to ‘rematriate’ some of the original data – to give it back to the city and communities it was abstracted from. In anonymising the data, we have clearly labelled each interview and fieldnote as ‘Manchester’ or ‘London’, offering the opportunity for future researchers to explore the significance of place to these young women’s lives, relationships and sexualities. Through anonymising the data and employing a feminist ethic of care we’ve had to remove many of the details of the streets, neighbourhoods, clubs and areas of Greater Manchester that the young women evoke. It feels almost sad that some of the defining parts of the WRAP young women’s stories (their Friday nights spent in Saltdean park making some questionable choices concerning boys in the year above) are lost through the anonymisation process, and that a new generation of researchers are unable to explore how, why and in what ways place might have mattered to them in forming their own sexual identities.

What we have made possible is that current and future researchers can now read these stories which have been handled carefully – twice. Once in 1989 and the early 1990s by the team of WRAP researchers and again in 2019 and 2020 by a new team of feminist researchers trying to balance our desire to both protect these young women from unwanted exposure or harm, whilst ensuring that the stories they chose to tell are still being heard.

INTERVIEWEE: What do you hope to gain from this research?
INTERVIEWER: I think we hope to be able to give young women themselves some kind of voice in terms of the sorts of things they find difficult or important or are concerned about. And to have some kind of input and feedback into health education. Some people design the leaflets and posters all the time, but they don’t necessarily talk to the people who are supposed to be reading them about what is important to them.
INTERVIEWEE: Will it go back into like sex education in schools do you think?
INTERVIEWER: We hope so yes. Because sex education in schools is pretty rudimentary and most people we have talked to say what you said. Something like it’s about babies and it wasn’t very helpful. It’s trying to say something about that. And more general things about how women feel about relationships and sexual relationships in particular, and what’s important. Generally nobody asks you, so we would like to do that so there will be a number of different things that we hope to relate to that and of course it should have been explained to you already …………..so you don’t need to worry about that, but we would like to think that the women we interview might actually read some of the things we write.
INTERVIEWEE: You actually write in magazines?
INTERVIEWER: Well we might do, we haven’t, but we think that might be quite a good idea to do that……….. not about…..so you might see something about it in Nineteen ……….

Interview with Lucy (MAG18) for the Women, Risk and AIDS Project.

To download and read the anonymised material visit the archive here. And if you don’t know where to start? Here’s Tonya’s interview.